Life is all around us and is especially notable at this time of year when the trees have burst forth in all of their glory and the flowers are blooming in an array of colors. People have come back outside with their children and their pets. The world is bursting with living organisms both seen and unseen. Of course it is in human beings that the magnificence of intellect is most apparent. We have used our minds over the centuries to harness energy and to understand the inner workings of our own bodies. The human brain is incredible and its abilities have given us domain over all of the earth. There have been those among us capable of eradicating diseases, creating machines that can fly, finding solutions to the problems that plague us. When we celebrate the accomplishments of mankind we often focus on the mathematical, scientific, and engineering feats that have made our lives more comfortable. We have risen above the animals because of our desire to do more than merely survive. We also possess a longing to express our feelings and our humanity and we often use art as a conduit for demonstrating just what a piece of work is man.
If we humans were simply concerned with fulfilling the most basic needs of obtaining food, finding shelter, and being safe from harm we would need little more than boxes for our homes and nutrients for our bodies. For centuries as people moved from place to place in search of food they lived with only as much as they were able to carry on their backs but even nomadic people brought music and stories to their campfires at night. Once knowledge of agriculture allowed people to stay in one place the artistic genius of humans showed its magnificence in earnest. People developed works of art even in the most ancient times. There was something in our DNA that compelled us to recreate the wonder that we saw around us.
There are writings from the ancient Greeks that tell stories of people who were much like us. There are works of art from the Romans that move us to this very day. In every corner of the world we have discovered remnants of civilizations that celebrated life in magnificent sculptures, implements, drawings, poems. There is an urge to be artistic in our very souls.
History shows us that the best of our artistic endeavors occur when we are not struggling with plagues or natural disasters or wars. We are mostly practical people but when we have the time we observe the world around us and consider the world inside our heads and we manipulate words, colors, movements. The era of the Renaissance was in many ways one of the most prolific times for the development of art. Wealthy patrons found promising young artists and paid them to make their homes and their churches and their towns more beautiful. The resulting body of work is legendary.
Somehow though, we have never really encouraged and honored those who would be artists quite as much as we do the more practical professions of the sciences. Certainly in today’s world we have some who have achieved both fame and fortune in artistic careers but mostly those who choose to follow a path of artistry struggle financially. Even worse they often bear the scorn of a society that sometimes considers the arts to be frivolous and unnecessary. When we speak of geniuses in today’s world we begin with someone like Bill Gates and only think of Andrew Lloyd Weber as an afterthought. Our gifted and talented classes are filled with children who score high in the areas of math and science but it rarely occurs to us to include those whose artistic abilities are above the norm. When we speak of those who are smart we usually mean people who easily tackle Calculus. Hardly ever do we include the young person who is able to bring us to tears when acting in a play. For some reason we hold the artists among us less dear than the STEM folks and yet is in the arts that we are most likely to find the essence of our humanity.
I love to visit museums that house the stories and the artifacts of prior generations. I am always in awe of the ingenuity of those who lived before us. I am also moved by their efforts to embellish their worlds with beauty. I feel their presence in the sculptures, paintings, objects, writings that they created in times long ago. In virtually every civilization people have been compelled to go beyond the utilitarian. They have left their mark and demonstrated just how incredible we actually are as people.
I suppose that I most enjoy art museums. We have a great one right here in Houston and it always amazes me how few people have actually taken the time to visit there. I remember going on field trips with my classmates when I was in high school. My English teacher, Father Shane, introduced me and the others to a world of art that I barely knew existed. He brought reproductions of famous works into the room where we listened to poetry and read stories from the masters. He often took us to see plays at the Alley Theater and he instilled in me and most of my friends a lifelong love of the arts.
Now whenever I visit a city or town that houses great works in a public arena I take the time to visit and to view. I adore the Art Institute in Chicago and MOMA in New York City. My favorite classes in the Rice Continuing Education program have been those that broaden my knowledge of art. I enjoy concerts of every conceivable type of music and plays that touch my heart. In fact, I believe that life would be quite dreary without the arts. In my own case I suppose that I would write no matter what my circumstances might be. It is an urge that lies inside my soul and while I will never reach the level of a Shakespeare or a Kafka I am able to still the stirrings in my mind each time that I follow my heart and enjoy my hobby.
I recently saw a writing prompt that asked me to discuss my favorite work of art. I realized that it would be impossible for me to do so in a single sitting. Art is more than just paintings and sculptures. It is the written word, music, dance, acting, design, architecture. How might I possibly choose one thing from the universe of art that surrounds and defines us as people? I am enamored with it all.
Artists breathe their very lives into the works that they create. A truly outstanding piece has a voice that speaks to us long after the person who made it is gone. It is impossible to read King Lear without feeling the heart and soul of the man who wrote that glorious play. I cannot stand in front of one of Picasso’s paintings without seeing his fire and his spirit. When I watch Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire I sense his essence. Listening to Yo Yo Ma play the cello is breathtaking.
I truly wish that we would remember in our rush to place so much value on science, technology, engineering, and technology that our artists are just as important to us. As a society we need to remember that it is in the beauty of works of art that we often find our greatest joy. We must nurture and encourage those with such talents because they are rare, beautiful, and very much needed. They elevate our humanity. We need to elevate them.